Use of Internet Chat Rooms to Find Partners by Men Who Have Sex With Men Speeding Spread of HIV, STDs
Gay and bisexual men in search of casual sex are "increasingly" using the Internet to find partners and, as a result, are spreading HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases at a faster rate than before, according to health officials, the Los Angeles Times reports. Health officials in California, Colorado, Kentucky and Maine, as well as other states, have traced outbreaks of several STDs to meetings arranged in Internet chat rooms. According to San Francisco officials, 18% of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with early-stage syphilis infections last year said they had used the Internet to locate sex partners. Thirteen percent of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with syphilis in Los Angeles County had done the same.
New Tool Makes Prevention Difficult
Many gay and bisexual men have been "quick to embrace" the Internet because it offers a sense of privacy. However, the "accessibility and anonymity" of the Internet are increasing the likelihood of "high-risk people meeting high-risk people," John Potterat, a Colorado epidemiologist, said. Men can log on to a Web site and find an interested partner in little time without learning or having any way to verify a person's sexual history. Public health officials are concerned by the rise in Internet usage among gay and bisexual men seeking casual sex partners -- Gay.com reported nearly 17.7 million chat sessions in April compared to four million sessions in January 1999 -- but are "ill-equipped to respond." In 1999, when San Francisco officials traced a rise in syphilis cases to seven men who had used an American Online chatroom to meet partners, Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, head of the city's STD control division, tried to use the Internet to alert potential partners to the risk and urge them to be tested. He asked AOL to post syphilis warnings in its San Francisco chat rooms but was turned down. Instead, the company offered his staff free AOL accounts so they could log in and disseminate information about the diseases. According to Klausner, fewer than half of the seven men's partners were notified and tested. The case illustrates how difficult it is to practice prevention and partner notification with people who met over the Internet, the Times reports. Many Internet encounters are often anonymous, with partners only knowing each other by their screen names, which can change daily, and many Internet service providers will not release the names of customers without a court order (Ornstein, Los Angeles Times, 7/26).